ON THE BLACK HILL is the story of Lewis and Benjamin Jones, identical twins born in Wales in 1900. It traces with humor and compassion their largely quiet country life from its beginning to its end in 1980. This is an accurate summary of Bruce Chatwin's first novel, but it is no more descriptive than saying that Vermeer's The Milk Woman is a picture of a woman standing at a table, a picture made by means of color applied to stiff fabric with a bundle of bristles.
Vermeer is not mentioned here without purpose. Over and over again, On the Black Hill suggests paintings, and primarily those of the Dutch masters of the 17th century. Never mind that the novel's world is 20th-century Wales; it is an Old World and very much a "still life" in both the painterly and literal senses of the term. Commentary in Art Treasures of the Louvre (Abrams, 1951) notes Hobbema's "sharpness of perception"; Vermeer's ability to transform "the reality of everyday life and humble subjects into a gentle and pervasive poetry"; the "perpetual silent melancholy" of Ruisdael's landscapes. These phrases also describe the writing of Bruce Chatwin, and describe it better than any others I can think of. Not surprising, perhaps; Chatwin was for some years an art auctioneer with Sotheby and Co. in London. If he has not had a painter's hand, he has a painter's eye.
But "still life" also applies because On the Black Hill is not so much a novel as an account. Its opening chapter shows us Lewis and Benjamin near the end of their life, sleeping together in their parents' bed, following the long-established patterns of a shared life shaped by the nature of their twinship: no longer identical in outward appearance, except occasionally for their clothing, but forever a single unit psychologically, so much so that "they even quarrelled without speaking."
After this introduction, Chatwin goes back to begin at the beginning with the marriage of their mismatched parents--their father, a red-haired wildman full of anger, their mother the gently reared daughter of a Church of England rector--and their setting up housekeeping at "The Vision," a foundering farm in Hereford in the hill country of Wales not far from the English border. A year later the twins are born and the story moves forward, its eye noting everything, its voice matter-of-fact, revealing the landbound simplicity of this still life with generosity and affection.
The twins are not identical in make-up. From the beginning Lewis, the first-born, is strong, unafraid, and curious while Benjamin is timid and given to nightmares. But these differences only serve to intensify the sense of their being halves of a single whole. After two brief separations, during both of which Benjamin suffers profoundly, they never try to live apart. Benjamin does "not like girls" and wants only his brother and his mother near him, and Lewis, who likes girls well enough to kiss a neighbor's daughter and lose his virginity later to another neighbor, is, beyond these small affairs, equally celibate. Neither ever marries. Instead, they work the farm, Lewis doing the heavier chores while Benjamin is cook, baker, and bringer of lambs. There is a sense throughout of Lewis' restlessness; he keeps a scrapbook of air disasters and longs to fly in an airplane himself. But his is finally only the restlessness we all feel in some part of ourselves, a part always at variance with that other part, played here by Benjamin, that is always demanding caution, peace, and security.
On the Black Hill is full of vivid secondary characters that circle the life of the twins and move freely about the landscape. There is, in fact, almost a Bruegelesque rambunctiousness suggested for the surrounding villages and farms, though the twins stay mainly on the edge of it. There are the Bickertons who, as owners of the estate of which "The Vision" is a part, provide a touch of wealth and gently comic noblesse oblige; the squalid Watkins family higher up on the hill, at "The Rock," a family consisting of small-minded Tom, a coffin-maker, and Aggie, his wife, a "thin, stooped woman with . . . a bluish complexion and . . . loose, lichenous hair," who take in foundlings and with whom the Joneses are often feuding. There is pretty Rosie Fifield, whose story is intertwined with that of the twins their whole lives long, and there is even a sister, Rebecca, who early runs away to escape the ignorant cruelty of their father.
But far more than the people and the small but colorful dramas of their joys and tragedies, there is the powerful character of the land. Nothing happens, however minor, that Chatwin does not make a setting for; every season, each change of weather, the shifting furnishings of birds, flowers, and animals, even the sky in its multitude of moods, all are laid into the background and brought continually forward to advance, or clarify, or frustrate events. Chatwin manages this with an extraordinary simplicity of syntax. There are no handy sentence inversions or artful tossings-about of phrases. Almost invariably he gives us straightforward noun followed by verb followed by object, and yet what he gives is always strongly evocative: "He pulled the chicken from his knapsack. She saw the cold pimply flesh. The smile fell from her face, and she stood rooted to the doorstep, shuddering." When the twins' father is killed by a stallion, "The hoof caught him under the chin, and the sparrows went on chattering." Often a paragraph will consist of a single simple sentence: "Benjamin said that Zeppelins looked like cucumbers."
There is no plot, no beginning, middle, and end of the sort we normally associate with novels. No evil or glorious purpose to overcome or lead to triumph. There is only life moving along in its random fashion in a very small corner of the world that seems, in the 80 years encompassed, largely untouched by what has been for the rest of us a time of continual upheaval and dazzling change. Benjamin and Lewis remain on the farthest fringes of those upheavals, and Chatwin, as their biographer, neither approves or disapproves--he merely reports, as if he were saying that with or without its man-made trappings, life comes down to something at last very simple: we are bound to the land, to its vagaries and cycles, and are nothing more than what it makes of us.
This is a philosophy more arguable now, perhaps, than it once was. But On the Black Hill is nevertheless a feast of great variety and richness for al its measured movement. Seldom does the reading of a novel make you want to know its author at least as well as he has let you know his characters. In this novel, the reader is strongly aware of the eye and the voice of its creator; they are always in the foreground and suggest a powerful personality worth spending time with. Maybe, if this book gets the readership it deserves (his two books of nonfiction, The Viceroy of Ouidah and In Patagonia were well received), Chatwin will come to America and let us see him. I hope so.